Sunday, April 25, 2010

Galatea 2.2, by Richard Powers

[Wikipedia summary of the novel here.]

I want to propose a rule about Richard Powers which I shall immediately break: only Richard Powers should write about Richard Powers's books.

Because in Galatea 2.2 there is some really extraordinary criticism of his own earlier novels: Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance, Prisoner's Dilemma, The Goldbug Variations, and Operation Wandering Soul. Now, granted, I have not read these books, but Powers both sells and critiques them well. And by doing so, he saves Galatea 2.2 from being a fairly flat-footed allegory or hypothetical étude; by making his past fiction so much a part of the present fiction, he lifts his reflections about literature and authorship and humanism out of the conditional and grounds it in something like lived experience. Metafiction here strangely serves to bring a narrative down to earth, not to send it careening off in recursive loops of fictive speculation. It also (rather counter-intuitively) makes Powers more likable, both as a character and as the author. He's actually much more charming when he's being kind of proud of his books; it's when he's sawing off about Literature in general that he's tedious or pedantic.

And there is a fair bit of frustration to be had in this novel. As a sort of homeopathic effort to prevent myself from getting too angry at the extraordinary awfulness of many passages, I tattooed the margins of this book liberally with "ughs" and "wtfs." (E.g., "We made interstellar contact, paralyzed by the mutual knowledge that any attempt to communicate would be culture-bound" or "I was so far out on a narrative limb that I knew I was ripe for amputation.") Very little, however, could diminish my irritation with Powers's glib depictions of theory-mad English students and his winsome reduction of humanism to remembering famous lines from famous poems and a constant "can-you-identify-the-allusion" memory game.

But I'd happily defend the novel, and even recommend it, and I'm sure I'll be returning to Powers, maybe even shortly (Gain has me very interested).

For one thing, it's entirely possible that the quasi-malapropisms Powers writes are simply an ill-advised high-wire act, an effort to turn the prose of the novel into a constant demonstration of the "clash of the Two cultures" fable that the novel is. Something like the interstellar contact line above or the exceedingly bad pun on "limb" is maybe someone's idea of what happens when scientific lingo and humanistic sentiment get drunk and throw up on each other, or more charitably and less evocatively (but still pretty much the same thing), what happens when they try to find an appropriate linguistic middle ground. I don't know—I throw it out as a possibility.

But even if that's not the case and there is no clever rationale behind the bad prose, rather like Dreiser's famous clumsiness, it's at least never the result of a lack of effort or a slackening of the writer's interest in his story. Whatever it is, it's not cynical, not just words on the page, a paragraph that exists just to get to the next. Powers, like Dreiser, earns his bad prose.

Powers talks very frequently about his love for high modernism, and it is all over his novels: "Proust, Mann, Joyce, Musil, Kafka" as he renders it in this minnesota review interview with Jeffrey Williams (whose interviews are models of the form). Yet right before that he mentions Thomas Hardy, and I feel that he probably undersells the influence of that type of realism on his novels because it's less sexy on the back cover as a blurb. Powers's books would probably sell many fewer copies if he were being compared to Dreiser (or Norris) and Hardy and not to Pynchon and Joyce. And it's interesting how Mann becomes strictly a modernist when Powers is acknowledging him as a forebear rather than as the realist Lukács and others have known him as. (Mann is really unrivaled in the last century as this type of double agent, and it's always interesting to see what writers do with him, how he can serve as a pivot, a way of turning oneself into a modernist even while much of one's allegiances may yet lie with the realists.)

One short observation about the Midwestern-ness of Powers or at any rate of this book. I know that California is really crucial for Prisoner's Dilemma and to Operation Wandering Soul, but in Galatea 2.2, Powers fits in pretty well with the "Midwest is west enough" geography I've written about earlier. There is a neat feature from Google Books that tags all the geographic locations mentioned in a book (or rather, all the city names—it seems not to tag names of U.S. states or other nations), and the orientation of the book is pretty clear, even though Powers codes the most important locations of the book (Urbana as U., Boston as B., and a city in the Netherlands I can't figure out as E.—Echt?). West and south of Illinois, there's basically nothing. The quarter of the country that includes the cis-Mississippi Midwest and the Northeast is for all intents and purposes the entire United States: the two references to Los Angeles are both in regard to Operation Wandering Soul, and the reference Google Maps interprets as being to Austin, TX is actually a reference to J. L. Austin.

View Larger Map
Google Maps doesn't catch it, but there are a few scattered references to the Yukon, where Powers's father goes to die. But the axis of the novel is very clearly one running from Chicago/Urbana through Boston to the Netherlands, and that maps along pretty damn well to my argument about Midwestern fiction more generally.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Style and the Man, by Meredith Nicholson

Ransacking a bit some histories of Indiana fiction, today I ran across Meredith Nicholson, a bestselling novelist from the very early parts of last century. His (yes, his—like Evelyn, it certainly throws one for a loop the first time) three best-sellers were from 1906, 1907, and 1912. A large number of his works are therefore in the public domain and available in full at Google Books. Most of his novels are fairly long, but there is a 55-page pamphlet type thing titled "Style and the Man" which appears to have been a sort of stock speech he must have given at various literary or fraternal society dinners.

The book was printed in 1911 and could be said to be one of the last full blooms of the Genteel Tradition (Santayana would give his famous address on the subject that year). While Nicholson was of a Midwestern background (and his regional pride peeks out just a bit when he praises the cogent rhetorical style of fellow Hoosier Benjamin Harrison), his exemplars of style are the sages of New England—Hawthorne, Emerson, James Russell Lowell, and Henry James—and the British writers who either influenced them or were typically read alongside them—Arnold, Newman, Macaulay, Ruskin, Carlyle, Kipling, and (a little surprisingly, I thought) Robert Louis Stevenson. We also get near the end a couple of names that have been virtually lost (at least to a non-Victorianist): Alice Meynell and Maurice Hewlett.

Nicholson's descriptions of these writers vary widely in eloquence and charm; I felt his characterizations of Hawthorne and Lowell to be flat, but once he has cleared his throat with them and gets to Emerson (one senses Emerson provides a more natural affinity), Nicholson's own style remarkably improves and his figures begin to move more freely. The remainder of the speech is, I think, very good, and well worth reading for its congeniality, even if it is not entirely original in its notions.

There are a couple of interesting passages near the Benjamin Harrison bit: Nicholson has turned to the changing fashions of political rhetoric and muses with a kind of cluttered, clumsy irony that "Terror and horror are rarely evoked by our later orators. Even the slaughter of the innocents in the Philippines in the amiable effort to extend our beneficent empire to Asia has brought forth no really striking protest worthy of the cause." And a page later he mocks the style of the former President TR:
And while we are touching upon the literary style of statesmen you will pardon me for quoting further, in illustration of the reluctance, caution and restraint that may check the exuberance of personal feeling, from a statement made by Colonel Theodore Roosevelt in January 1904. He said: [a hyperbolic statement about the virtues and abilities of Secretary of War Elihu Root follows] Criticism offers no adequately descriptive word for this type of reserved, unventurous statement. Let us consider whether it may not properly be styled the imperial theodoric.
At any rate, I wanted to pass this on; as Aaron proved with a recent discovery of a bizarre gothic-football story by Willa Cather, there's all kinds of crazy things from the turn of the century hanging out on the internet.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Main-Travelled Roads, by Hamlin Garland

My edition of Garland's breakthrough work has an introduction by Van Wyck Brooks, and in it, Brooks makes Garland into a sort of reverse-pioneer. I'll quote at length because I'll probably need this quote later, but I'll bold the most obviously relevant sentences so you can just skim:
Hamlin Garland was a follower of Howells, who said that a novelist should deal with the life he knows best and cares the most about. In fact, according to Eugene Field, who preferred to write about valorous knights, fairy godmothers and especially children, Howells was the 'only bad habit' of Garland. At that time both Field and Garland were living in Chicago, but Garland himself had spent several years in Boston before he began to write at all. He had taken the 'back trail,' to the amazement of the westward-streaming millions for whom the sunset sky stood for the promise and romance, and, alone and poor in the 'cradle of liberty,' he studied Darwin and John Fiske, absorbing the ideas of Taine about environment, race, and moment. Then he had fallen in with Howells, who had turned his mind back to the prairies on which he had grown up, and, still in Boston, he began to put together the stories he collected in Main-Travelled Roads.

Garland had come from the Middle Border, one of the last of the Westerners for whom Boston was the literary metropolis. His family had moved from Wisconsin to Iowa, then to Minnesota and then to South Dakota, but Garland himself refused to follow, although for a winter he took up a claim of his own. He had been for a while in charge of his father's farm, and Garland remembered the feeling of adventure when his family moved to the remoter West and the unploughed places of the unsettled prairie. The Garland cabin was a house of song, for his maternal uncles were all musicians, but one and all were subject to moods of heartache and loneliness, and the father resented the stumps that impeded his plough. Garland resolved to leave his shack on the wind-swept plain, go to Massachusetts—which no other plainsman before him had done by choice—and fit himself to teach.
Howells himself also came from the Midwest (Martins Ferry, Ohio), although Brooks is probably right in distinguishing Garland from Howells as a "plainsman"—Martins Ferry is right on the Ohio River, immediately across from Wheeling, West Virginia, and it would not due to call a man from that part of the country a "plainsman." Still, I wonder at Brooks's silence about this experience of eastward migration that Howells and Garland shared: while it is reasonable to say that "no other plainsman before [Garland] had [gone to Massachusetts] by choice" (even if this may not actually be true—I can't recall a prior case, but I bet there is one, though less notable than Garland), it is striking to say this in the immediate context of the influence of another emigrant from the internal U.S. Riparian Ohio is certainly quite different from Wisconsin, but Howells was a young man for whom Boston was the Eastern literary metropolis just as it was for Garland. (Not too much later, of course, Boston would be supplanted by New York.)

How similar were their experiences, really? How much should we credit Howells's origins for encouraging Garland to write about the prairies? Would a hypothetical Howells who had been born in say, Springfield, Massachusetts have done so? To be perfectly honest, I haven't yet read enough of either really to compare the two writers judiciously or substantially or to answer my hypothetical, but I do want to pose the question now as a sort of placeholder for future inquiry. The question of whether there was something like a regional identity (or if not a regional identity, something shared in the common experience of moving east to a metropolis) in play in the relationship between the two men, and if so, to what extent that served as a foundation for their literary production is something I want to continue to explore not just for these two men, but for many sets of men and women who have had similar experiences and similar relationships.

Reasons to Live, by Amy Hempel

Accounting for the changes in one's taste over time is among the best methods for drawing distinctions in art. Certainly these will be subjective, but there are few subjects I am as expert on as myself—an achievement most people share—and it would seem a waste not to make something out of self-knowledge, imperfect as it may always be.

I read some thin filets out of Amy Hempel's Collected Stories after it came out in 2006. I liked what I read, but I had it out as a new book from the library and I had to return it before I wanted to. I'm not sure why I didn't check it out again or even buy it (I have run across it many times on Borders' 3-for-2—or is it 4-for-3?—table), but I have now returned to one of the four volumes it collects, Reasons to Live. I have not enjoyed it.

It is not terribly difficult for me to say why not: lives of clever desperation do not any longer have meaning for me because I cannot convince myself that the achievement of being clever about desperation is something to applaud, and certainly not worth emulating or holding as an inspiration or shield against days when I might struggle to feel clever in the midst of what passes for despair in an early- (and now mid-) twenties life. In short, Hempel, like many other writers who specialize in short stories or in novels that resemble short stories, is most intent not on conveying to the reader the content of a feeling, but rather its contours—the fineness and precision of its depiction and not the thing itself. It is rather the opposite of sentimental fiction—not because it eschews feeling, but because its approach to sentiment is one of appreciation rather than emotion. The point is not to recognize oneself in the feeling but to recognize oneself in the care that was taken to describe it, the self-reflexivity that allows it to be articulated. "I too can be so precise and eloquent about my feelings," it wants you to say, "I too can be so smart about my pathos." Or, if in fact you can't be so eloquent and smart, you can always aspire—aspire to be a writer, probably (that is, hopefully) of short stories of clever desperation.

I have what will probably be an unpopular conjecture about the origin of this need for fineness and precision and whom it principally appeals to—a conjecture that will be unpopular because it will probably sound scornful, although scorn is not my intention. I do not now find this aesthetic of clever desperation particularly compelling, but I have in the past found it so, and while it is common and even a little banal to repudiate one's previous selves, I also see that my attraction to it was fairly honest, and I imagine it is so in others who appreciate writers like Hempel.

My conjecture is simple: single people will find precision in fiction more attractive than those who are in (committed) relationships for the very simple reason that, in fiction, absences can be depicted precisely while presences cannot. The company of and intimacy with another person can only ever be rendered approximately in fiction, while the thought or feeling of an absence, because it is self-defined, can be specified with astounding minuteness. We make up what is absent in our lives, and we can afford to be precise because there is no one to contradict us. We cannot, on the other hand, make up what is present in our lives because the person who is present also has a say in how our reality (or our narrative) unfolds. And we cannot (and probably do not want to) achieve exactness in describing or defining that other person's presence because doing so would mean that we have stopped paying attention, have turned that presence into merely a filled absence, the solution to the problem of being single. Relationships should be so much more than that.

This type of literature—singles' literature—is necessarily always about discovery—finding the person or object who fills or seems to fill the self-defined absence in one's life. The importance of epiphany (the ultimate—albeit ephemeral—discovery) to the contemporary short story is well-known, but I think one can also include in this genre or metagenre most narratives about sad young literary men—Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision is vehemently single in orientation, even though it has a sort of love plot. And one can contrast this drama of discovery with the drama of adjustment most classically found in Austen, but now embodied in… well, actually, that's kind of tough. I just read The Ask, and I think the case can be made (counter-intuitive as it is) that Sam Lipsyte's books to some extent take up this role. They are dramas of adjustment where adjustment finally fails to happen, but at least he knows that the answers to his protagonists' problems aren't so simple as plugging a lack or absence that they themselves have defined—adjustment to the presence of others is what must be done.

My conjecture about the single-ness of this literature, I will readily admit, is strictly biographical: between my first reading of Hempel and this year's return to her, I have found someone who has made all the difference. I certainly don't want to be confessional here, but I do want to acknowledge that my conjecture about this type of literature and to whom it appeals is not the product of abstract, disinterested speculation—as if such a thing would be useful here.

Originally, I noticed this reorientation of my tastes in film, and I think my conjecture might have even greater purchase there: there is something like a genre or a meta-genre of films that single people see—something that spans from Michael Haneke to Wes Anderson. For in both, there is a tremendous emphasis on exactness, whether that is the austere formal rigor of the former or the highly-determined idiosyncrasy of the latter. There is always a song that is exactly right for the moment in a Wes Anderson movie, and there is always an exactly defined tremor or shudder that Haneke is trying to induce with his meticulous management of the camera and of time. In both, everything is calibrated to an intense, almost inhuman degree of precision. Compared with the outright messiness of a 30s screwball comedy, it is almost as if you're watching a different medium being used.

Of course, my conjecture is highly general and it is really more intended as a provocation than as a definition. But I think it is worth thinking about whether there is something like a genre which can be defined by this desire for precision, this passion for exactness. I began playing around with these terms when I was struggling to find a way to think the problem of how to account for what I saw as a "strongly unified sensibility" in The Millions "Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)" list. I called it a "ZOMG every word is perfect" aesthetic, which I guess is another (and pithier) way of saying what I've said here. I suppose one could also call it workshop fiction or MFA-lit, although I think it is slightly broader than MFA programs or creative writing classes (though any more, students, graduates, and teachers of such programs and classes seem to make up a large percentage of "serious" readers). And to return to my conjecture about the role of being single, I don't know whether MFA students are generally more frequently single than, say, PhD students (although I have been surprised at how many PhD students I know are in long-term, committed relationships), but I haven't read too many Iowa Writers' Workshop graduates who write about happy or successful relationships.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Academic Ambition #2

Write many footnotes like this:
Faulkner may have been in the same room with Cather in New York in 1931. According to Blotner, the crime novelist Dashiell Hammett and Faulkner had finagled an invitation to a Knopf dinner through Bennett Cerf. Inebriated beyond the likelihood of conversation, Faulkner was present at least part of the time.
-Candace Waid, "Burying the Regional Mother: Faulkner's Road through the Visual Arts," The Faulkner Journal 23:1 (Fall 2007) 43.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Ihre Preise

I have not blogged in a little more than a week, and I probably owe something of an explanation.

Most of my "free" (it should probably instead be called "unproductive") time has been devoted to researching and writing for the statistics columns I contributed to the Tournament of Books (first column, second column, third column, fourth column). I hope any of you who have been following the Tournament (which is now almost complete) enjoyed these contributions, or at least found them of passing interest.

More substantively, they represent something I'm fairly interested in: the role of what is called the paratext in how we think about and encounter books. It's a large topic, and I'm just beginning to think about how it works, but I'm pretty convinced that questions like "how do we encounter a 500-page book differently from a 250-page book?" or "is there an optimal page range for an 'ambitious' book?" are more than trivialities or idle questions.

In the spirit of open inquiry, I have created a Google Documents spreadsheet with the data I compiled for the last Tournament of Books column I wrote, where I looked at the winners and finalists for five prizes—the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award for Fiction, the Man Booker, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and the PEN/Faulkner award—for the last five years as well as all the winners for all years of the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. It's pretty rudimentary aggregation and I'm hoping to add some other elements in over time (other prizes, including some genre prizes, and some other variables like the presence of chapters, average chapter length, publisher, etc.), but I figured I'd share what I have now.

One note on methodology: I used the WorldCat database to pull page counts, and I attempted throughout to use the pagination of the first editions of each book. Sometimes, the WorldCat entry notes that a book is a first edition, other times I had to guess by the year it printed. That should still be pretty accurate, but if there are any corrections I need to make, please let me know.